Friday, August 17, 2007

Deportation nearer for paralyzed Sikh man

The Globe and Mail

August 16, 2007

VANCOUVER -- A failed refugee claimant who sought sanctuary in an Abbotsford Sikh temple but landed in jail after he made a brief trip to the hospital is a step closer to deportation.

An Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada member yesterday ordered Laibar Singh, 48, to remain in custody until arrangements can be made for him to be flown home to India on Monday.

It was a disappointing decision for the ailing Mr. Singh, who was partly paralyzed by an aneurysm last fall. Too infirm to attend the hearing, he listened to the proceedings from a cellphone at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam, where he's being cared for by medical staff.

Throngs of supporters from British Columbia's Sikh community lined up for more than an hour to get one of 50 seats available in the small immigration hearing room.

Mr. Singh's lawyer, who had hoped to get his client released, was saddened by the development and appealed to Immigration Minister Diane Finley to intervene and permit Mr. Singh to remain in Canada.

"Given the huge amount of community support here, it would be remiss on the part of the minister to not speak to this personally," Zool Suleman told reporters outside the downtown office building where the hearing occurred.

Mr. Singh's plight has galvanized Sikhs across British Columbia's Lower Mainland, especially in Abbotsford, where he was holed up for a month.

Supporter Surdev Singh Jatana said fellow Sikhs were prepared to shelter Mr. Singh indefinitely and pay his medical expenses until his condition improved.

"We never thought in a country like Canada that this would happen," Mr. Jatana said. "He was getting better and most of us were wanting him to get better, and be able to look after his children."

Mr. Singh, a widowed father of four, entered Canada illegally in 2003 and soon after made a refugee claim, alleging he faced persecution by Punjabi police because he had been falsely linked to a Khalistan nationalist group whose goal is to form a Sikh state. His claim, made in Montreal, was rejected and he was ordered deported, but he fled to Vancouver.

Mr. Singh's children are all in India.

But the lawyer for the Canada Border Services Agency painted Mr. Singh's actions in Canada in a darker light.

Gregory Zuck told the hearing Mr. Singh has been dodging authorities since his refugee claim was rejected three years ago. He failed to show up for ordered appointments with immigration authorities, then moved from Montreal to Vancouver without providing a change of address.

After he fell ill in Vancouver, border services withdrew Mr. Singh's arrest warrant until he recovered.

Then, one day before Mr. Singh's scheduled deportation last month, a visitor appeared at the Vancouver long-term care centre where he was being treated, Mr. Zuck said, and asked to take Mr. Singh to a temple to pray.

Mr. Singh vowed to return but did not.

At the time, border officials had arranged for a private plane, complete with private nurse and doctor, to take Mr. Singh back to India. The tab was nearly $69,000, which is still owed to the private aircraft company, Mr. Zuck said.

Canadian authorities had also arranged for Mr. Singh to be taken to a renowned New Delhi hospital to be assessed.

However, Mr. Suleman argued that his client won't get proper care in India, noting he doesn't have the money to pay for top-quality rehabilitative care.

The lawyer asserted that Canadian authorities, in arresting Mr. Singh in the hospital, breached a long-held tradition to respect the walls of a place of worship. The only reason Mr. Singh left the temple earlier this month was to get needed medical treatment for an infection, Mr. Suleman said.

Immigration and Refugee Board member Otto Nupponen said he sympathized with Mr. Singh but refused to release him, saying he posed a flight risk.

"Mr. Singh is in a truly difficult position," Mr. Nupponen said, but added Canadian officials have shown restraint and sensitivity in dealing with his case.

"Canada Border Services Agency went to great lengths to ensure the removal order was effected as suitably and compassionately as possible."